The news that former Wellington, now Melbourne-based Kiwi karter Madeline Stewart has been signed by Brad Jones Racing to drive a VE Holden Commodore V8 in the recently re-focused and re-named Kumho Tyre Super3 Series in Australia might come as a bit of a shock to some Talk Motorsport readers.
Not to me. Nor, I would imagine, to any one of the thousands of impressed observers who has watched the now 18-year-old’s steady rise and rise at kart tracks here and across the Tasman over the past five years.
Madeline is good, very good, there is absolutely no doubt about that. She made history (or should that be her-story?) when she won her class (as well as the SA class title for the year) at the South Australian round of the 2017 Rotax Pro Tour. And she currently holds the #2 plate in the premier KZ2 class here in New Zealand having finished second to multi-time NZ kart champ Mathew Kinsman at the Sprint Nationals in Rotorua last Easter.
So why didn’t (or rather, why hasn’t) she quit karting here in favour of – say – a season in Vees then another two or three in Fords, before throwing her lot in with the TRS?
The easiest way to explain it is with an extravagant shrug of the shoulders, while mouthing (in heavily Italian-accented English) the words, ‘It’s-a-com-pli-cated!’
But really it isn’t.
Since Dad Tony Stewart got older sister Ashleigh and Madeline started karting here in New Zealand the sisters, father and mum Andrea have forged their own unique path, taking counsel when and where they thought it necessary but then always making their own decisions.
One of those, obviously was to stay in karts (which both sisters love as much for the people and social life as the racing), the other was to head across the Tasman early in their teens and treat Australia and its two big ‘professional’ series, namely the Rotax Pro Tour and the (now multi-round) Australian Kart Championships, as an extension of their own Kiwi campaigns.
It’s been a serious commitment both in terms of time flying in and out of Wellington for as many as six series’ rounds between Jan-Feb and Sept and the inevitable time out from school, friends, etc. It hasn’t come cheaply either. But the economies of scale mean that you can do it and do it well, because there are any numbers of teams – some even with direct links to factories back in the ‘motherland’ of Italy – ready and willing to take on drivers and give them everything they need to succeed – including contacts within the hallowed hierarchy of the Supercars world.
For a price, obviously. But the Aussie kart teams certainly don’t do things by halves. Some these days for instance are running multi-kart/driver teams (across classes from Cadets through to KZ2) out of triple axle trailers acquired from Virgin Australia Supercars Championship teams!
One of these teams (though I’m not sure what sort of transporter he rocks!!) is run by an ambitious young former karter (2007 NZ Rotax Max Heavy title-holder, no less) and Aussie Formula Ford driver, Tom Williamson. Now, when a bloke like Tom takes money from a Dad like Tony Stewart to run one of both of his daughters there is an understanding that he will not only provide a competitive kart and engine package (competitive defined as a winner in the right hands) he will also do the 101 other things a teen needs to succeed; like driver coaching using data, and working with the driver, the Mum, the Dad and anyone else deemed important enough to help the driver, drive…and hopefully win.
It does no harm either, if the bloke running the team has links with teams a little further up the pecking order. In Tom’s case his are with BJR (Brad Jones Racing) and – over the years – have gone both ways. For a start, when Tom first moved from karts to cars himself it was BJR who ran his Formula Ford programme.
Then when Brad was looking for someone to run his own son, Macauley Jones, in the KZ2 class in the Australian Kart Championships he didn’t have to look far.
Obviously when your own son is competing you pay a little bit more interest in who else is ‘doing OK,’ hence the BJR’s decision to sign both top Aussie karter Joshua Fife, and Kiwi Madeline Stewart, and run both in the newly retagged Kumho Tyres Super3 series which kicks off at Phillip Island in April.
Their signing comes at a key time for the Virgin Australia Supercars championship.
Years of bombarding series management and fans with – from where I stand look like incredibly mean-spirited pot shots – have helped create a division in the sport which has in turn created an environment where a second touring car series, one based around the international TCR-spec cars, looks like it has gained enough traction to get going across the Tasman.
Supercars has both history and a (V8) soundtrack I can’t see the current generation of Aussie and Kiwi fans ever tiring of. However it’s still incredibly hard to break into the ‘Main Game’ as our own Chris Pither is wanting to prove. He won the so-called ‘Dunlop Series’ (Super2) last year but not even that calling card was enough to get him a full-time gig back in the Virgin series.
What to do? Particularly when there is obviously no shortage of well-funded young drivers looking for opportunities at the moment.
Supercars’ answer is to formalise a third tier, called (funnily enough) Super3, which will sit below the Virgin Australia Supercars Championship and Dunlop Super2 Series but join both at four key 2019 Virgin Supercar rounds, Phillip Island, Winton, Queensland Raceway and Tailem Bends
The series, which caters for pre-2013 spec. Supercars, will remain independently run by existing category managers Rob and Liam Curkpatrick.
Up until this year it has played largely on the novelty value of mixing the odd talented young bloke in a decently funded later model car with a bunch of weekend warriors in older models, many running in their original retro livery.
This year, however, Supercars CEO Sean Seamer (a Kiwi by the way!) made it perfectly clear at the official launch of the link between the two; the Super3 Series, he said, is part of Supercars vision to develop a direct pathway for young drivers to the Virgin Australia Supercars Championship he is ‘the boss of!’
And it obviously didn’t take BJR long to see the benefit. To which all I can say is about time.
With their decent power but (relatively) narrow track, skinny spec wheel and tyre package (which has to fit within the standard silhouette’s unmodified side panels) and 1200+kg racing weight means that a typical modern Supercar is, according to drivers I know well and whose opinions I trust, not the easiest beast to drive.
The commentators, for instance, are always rabbiting on about a ‘green tyre gain’ which you and I might imagine is about extra (side-on) bite meaning that a driver can carry more speed into, through the middle, then out of a corner.
Sure we might imagine that, but it isn’t true. The main gain with a set of green tyres, apparently, is longitudinal (in other words, in a straight line) and is gained by braking later and harder, remaining (well) off the loud pedal from turn in to the time when you start winding lock back out……..at which point you have to ease the throttle back on again, unless you want huge quantities of oversteer everywhere a la Richie Stanaway in Townsville last year!!
Because of this fact then, if your #1 ambition is to snare a drive in the ‘Main Game’ it would make sense to learn about the cars as soon as possible. And if that is at the expense of a year in Formula Ford, TRS or an 86 (here or in Oz) then so be it.
Which is why I think it is such a great idea that BJR is running Madeline and Josh in the Super3 series. As Madeline herself says;
“It’s a big deal going from karting straight into Super3. Most people will go through Formula Ford or Toyota 86 first, making the transition a little easier.
“I’ve had to learn a lot about how to make these cars work and the way my inputs can make a big difference in how the car handles.
“(However) If I can keep progressing, learning and moving forward through the field then that will be a pretty solid first year.”